Q&A with author Daniel Whitman

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As U.S. embassy spokesman in Port-au-Prince from 1999-2001, Daniel Whitman

closely observed the violence and chaos that derailed Haiti’s struggle for

democracy. Whitman, now with the State Department’s Africa bureau in

Washington, sees then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as a

populist-turned-dictator who stole the 2000 election and who either allowed

or directed his armed supporters to intimidate and murder his critics and

political opponents. It’s a view he expresses in his newly released book, A

Herald Caribbean correspondent Joe Mozingo interviewed Whitman about

Aristide’s devolution from a wildly popular priest who ministered in the

country’s slums to the autocratic ruler who was ousted Feb. 29, 2004.

Question: What’s the relevance of this book to someone trying to understand

the situation in Haiti today?

Answer: Some of the problems Haiti has today, the provisional government,

random murders, a climate of intimidation where no one quite understands who

is doing it: I hope the book creates a context by showing how the democratic

process fell apart.

Q: In your book you paint a picture of Aristide’s Lavalas Family party as

corrupt and murderous. His supporters deny everything.

A: In Haiti, you’ll almost never find hard evidence for anything. But there

are indicators. For example, a lot of criminal acts and murders were

committed in the name of Lavalas. These gangsters said they committed these

crimes on behalf of Lavalas. When asked yes or no, do these people speak for

you, Aristide never had an answer. He never said yes or no.

Q: But the book clearly gives the impression that the violence was directly

orchestrated by Aristide and Lavalas. Is that your view?

A: Yes. We know that Lavalas paid 200 or 300 troublemakers up to [$9 U.S.] a

day. They were disrupting life in the capital of Port-au-Prince. I saw it. I

took pictures with my own camera — police, ambulances, trucks, distributing

rocks for rock throwing, tires for tire burning. I was an eyewitness to all

this. My office had a window onto a part of the city that was very affected

by these things. There is hard evidence for the government of Haiti

facilitating the gangsters creating unrest in the capital city.

Q: Did you see the government delivering guns?

A: No I didn’t . . . There was a group, Fanmi Selavi. It was a place where

young boys lived and were supported by the Lavalas Party. Street kids.

Preadolescent. We know they were being trained to be paramilitaries. I met a

Swiss reporter who was onto the story who was told he must leave the country

immediately or he’d be killed . . . I never saw the inside of the place. I

knew the address. But if you knock on the door, you’re dead. So I never did.

Q: If Aristide’s supporters in the slums were so well-armed and organized,

as you write, how did such a small group of rebels overthrow him?

A: The people getting paid by Lavalas to create civil unrest, there were not

that many of them, 200 or 300. Now, in a country with no functioning police

and no army, a few hundred armed individuals can call the shots.

Q: Where would you put Aristide in Haiti’s pantheon of bad rulers?

A: Well, Aristide was seen as a liberator. He was a man of the people. He

was trained by Salesian monks as a promising young child with intellect. He

had tremendous popular support and support from the international community.

Why he turned against his own people, as I believe he did, I think you’d

have to be a psychoanalyst to understand.

Q: Why didn’t the White House do more to help.

A: There were constant statements saying, ”Try to do better.” I would

argue that these statements were very bland and were not strong enough to

convince the Haitian government that they meant business.

Q: Was this because [President Bill] Clinton had such a vested interest,

having reinstalled him (in 1994, following a coup three years before)?

A: I’ll let you draw your own conclusion on that one. I can’t say why the

criticism was never adequate as the Lavalas regime became more and more


Q: One of the claims in the book is that the foreign media missed this

devolving situation in Haiti.

A: Absolutely. The Haitians even have a word for it in their language. It

was called the blackout. They were very hurt, very personally and culturally

wounded. They believed there was a policy of some sort that prevented

foreign media from covering events in their country.

I don’t think there was a policy. But for example, CNN, which has bureaus

around the world, including Cuba, never had one in Haiti. The Associated

Press was writing about the situation every day, and American and European

newspapers rarely picked the stories up.

Q: You wrote fairly positively about the Democratic Convergence, the

political opposition that helped push Aristide out of power.

A: Democratic Convergence was the first alliance of parties in Haitian

history, I think, where you had a unified opposition. It’s real democracy if

there is an opposition. Previously, Haiti had various opposition, but only

splintered and fragmented.

Q: And also completely suppressed by previous rulers.

A: Yes. . . The regime would argue that the Convergence were all

reactionaries, right-wing bourgeois trying to seize power for their own


Q: Was there that element?

A: There was. The Convergence certainly included a wide spectrum from the

very genuine people who wanted to improve Haiti to, certainly, individuals

in it for their own personal benefit. The Convergence, did they truly

represent the people of Haiti? I can’t say. Many Haitians did not feel that

Convergence represented them, but others did.

Q: Now that Aristide’s gone, do you have any sense of where the country is

going today?

A: Only a fool would predict what’s going to happen to Haiti.

or through the Haiti Democracy Project at haiti@haitipolicy.com. It will be

available on Amazon.com within a few weeks.